Alun Clewe (alun_clewe) wrote,
Alun Clewe

Lost in Translation

So, I'd said last week that the physics department colloquium I went to then might very well be the last one I went to all semester, owing to the fact that I never understood enough of what was being said to get anything out of them. Well, as I mentioned yesterday, the topic of this week's colloquium was "Lost in Translation: Writing about Science for the General Public", and...well, a colloquium about writing about science should be accessible enough, I figured, and sounded interesting enough I decided to go.

With one thing and another, though, I set off later than I anticipated, and didn't get there in time. I considered skipping the colloquium after all, but decided to go anyway. And, though this meant sitting uncomfortably on the floor in the back of the room until someone departed early and left an empty seat, I'm glad I went. It was a much better talk than I'd expected.

(So why didn't I post about it yesterday? be honest, because I anticipated this would probably turn into a long entry, and I didn't have time to make it yesterday...)

The speaker was one K. C. Cole, formerly a science writer for the Los Angeles Times and currently a visiting professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her talk was interesting and engaging enough that when she mentioned in passing having written books, I made a mental note of possibly getting my hands on a copy of one of them--only to realize later that I already had one. (The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty; it is, however, one of the many books I have that I haven't managed to get around to reading yet.)

I hadn't realized what a bad state science writing was in. K. C. Cole resigned from the L. A. Times mostly because of the great difficulty she had in getting them to run any science stories. (And other major papers, apparently, aren't any better...she alluded to the New York Times having a habit of running stories on new borderline-crackpot fringe theories as if they had already been generally accepted by the scientific community.) The newspapers are convinced people aren't interested in stories about science, and yet when the stories are run, they're widely popular. Just prior to her resignation, she had been struggling with a five-part story about string theory the L. A. Times kept wanting to "dumb down" further; finally one editor went over the heads of the middle-level editors and got them to run it as is, and the paper received an enormous amount of positive response to the story from the public.

(K. C. Cole used a number of humorous cartoons to illustrate her points during her talk, and at one point even a "story" from the Onion. The story she showed was "Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs"--her point was that, unlike in this story, real-world science doesn't change overnight, and that in one sense "there's no such thing as science news". However, touching on the dearth of science reporting, I think this story might have been appropriate...)

Even when a story is run, it can get garbled in the editing process; she had numerous anecdotes about editors introducing errors into her stories. For instance, a sentence an editor inserted into one story mentioning the dark side of the moon where the sun never shines was corrected in the next issue--there is, of course, no such "dark side of the moon"; obviously at any given time half the moon is in shadow, but it's not always the same half--, and attributed to a "copy editing error". In more recent times, however, newspapers have no longer attribute errors, which, she said, "drives reporters crazy", since it leaves the impression that they got something wrong that in fact was an editor's mistake. Not, of course, that reporters are immune to mistakes either--she did ruefully mention one occasion in which she absent-mindedly wrote that the sun was "93 million light-years away", and was saved from her error by an editor asking her "Did you really mean to say light-years?"--but not everything a newspaper story gets wrong is the fault of the reporter.

Anyway, though, the problems with science reporting in the media today were only a sideline to her talk; the main point, as the title implied, was how science should be reported. She bulleted her talk with tongue-in-cheek headings, such as the following:
  • Lie (It's okay to gloss over details in reporting for the general public, as long as you get the important ideas correct--though of course it's important to know which are the important ideas!)
  • Cheat (This did have to do with the newspapers' reluctance to run science stories--sometimes to get a story run, it's necessary to find an excuse tie it in with some other current events, or use other tactics. Once she wanted to write a story about a breakthrough in string theory, and the paper wouldn't run it because they hadn't previously run a story about the theory and didn't want to run a story about a breakthrough in a theory they hadn't mentioned before. She thought that ridiculous, but got her story in by starting a series of stories about scientists thinking outside the box, and slipping it in as one of the series.)
  • Steal (Quote other writers; use good ideas you find elsewhere--but of course always give proper attribution!)
  • Dare to Be Stupid (I think this had to do with not worrying if you don't understand the topics at first.)
  • Don't Trust Your Sources (Experts make mistakes...she told a story of having sent one book to a string theory and a cosmologist for fact-checking; the string theorist caught the errors in cosmology, and the cosmologist caught the errors in string theory, because when reading about their own field they tended to see what they expected to see and skip over the errors. This was also where the stories of bad editing came in--"Don't Trust Your Editors" was a corollary of "Don't Trust Your Sources"...)
  • Waste People's Time (Writers may interview people who never get quoted in the final story, and read papers that never get referred to...)
  • Quote Out of Context ("The truth is, you're always out of get used to it.")
  • Don't Expect Anyone To Understand You (Editor: "But we don't understand it!" Reporter: "Right. Nobody understands it. That's what makes it interesting.)
  • Don't Expect Anyone to Believe You ("One of the worst sins in science writing is just to state stuff without stating how it's known.")
  • Prepare To Make Mistakes (Here she shared one of the last columns she'd written for the L.A. Times, entitled "Missteps Are Still Progress On the Road To Recovery"--it was here the "93 million light-years" quote came up, along with other like errors.)
  • Avoid Hardening of the Categories (Don't focus too narrowly; don't be afraid to bring different disciplines together. The heading she attributes to a quote by artist Bob Miller (although a Google search shows the phrase being used in many different places, and it's certainly quite possible for many people to have come up with it independently))
  • Debase Yourself, Not Your Readers (It's okay to write about science for popular media that aren't "high culture")
  • Eschew Objectivity (It's all right to have a viewpoint in your writing.)
  • Emote (No less a scientific luminary than Richard Feynman, in a footnote in the Feynman Lectures, wrote:
    Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars ~ mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination ~ stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern ~ of which I am a part ~ perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
    Science writing need not be dry and clinical; it can be as expressive and poetic as writing about any other field.)

The "Don't Expect Anyone To Understand You" point--the exhortation to explain how things are known--particularly resounded with me, because a while back I wrote a long rant on exactly this issue in teaching. I think the failure to explain how we know things is an especially pernicious problem, because without knowing the reason why scientific theories are believed, people have no reason to believe them, and that leaves fertile ground for all manner of nasty pseudoscience to take root.

After the lecture, someone asked K. C. Cole how she had gotten into science writing. Her answer was that she hadn't set out to initially--in fact, she'd started out writing about Eastern European politics. But then one day, on a visit to the Exploratorium, she met Frank Oppenheimer and was "floored". As she explained it, "I got really excited and wanted to spend the rest of my life telling everybody about all this cool stuff."

("You hear that?" said the professor running the colloquium. "We're cool.")

I think sometimes, when I go on about my frustration with my dissertation, and my regret in ever having gone to grad school in the first place, I may give the impression that I'm not really interested in physics. That's not it; not really. I'm not interested in studying physics in a university environment, but probably that has more to do with how it's taught (and with how I prefer to learn things) than with any deficiency in the subject. I'm not interested in pursuing physics as a career, but that's only because I have so many other interests, and there's so much I want to do. If I hadn't gone to grad school, and I hadn't pursued a doctorate in physics, I'd still be reading about physics, and learning about it on my own; I'd probably still have a decent knowledge in physics, albeit mostly self-taught. As much as I loathe grad school, and much as I want to be done with it, physics itself I certainly find interesting--and, more broadly, science; it's not just physics I'm interested in. (I haven't had any biology classes since high school, but from my own reading and study on my own time I've amassed a decent knowledge of the subject--certainly not the equivalent of a professional biologist, but possibly comparable to that of someone with a B.A. in the field.) Of course, it's not just science I'm interested in, either; I'm interested in art, and literature, and, well, a whole lot of things, which is as I said why I don't want to devote my life to physics. But I certainly do think that science is fascinating and valuable, and that it should be reported, and taught, better than it is.

Another questioner asked K. C. Cole if she had any ideas on how science reporting should be improved. She had an immediate answer: Write letters to the editor. Write the papers demanding they bring science coverage back.

I don't know if things will improve or not. Science in the U.S. is at a very low point right now (and the current administration has quite a bit of the blame for that). But...well, that's a subject for another time.

(Side note: In searching for links for this entry, I ran across this science blog, one of the contributors to which happens to be the professor at USC who's currently in charge of the department colloquia. Anyway, looks like an interesting site, and one I may keep an eye on in the future.)
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